When Keynes Went to America: The First Bretton Woods Meeting Was Intended to Establish a Postwar Money Regime and Secure Funds for Rebuilding a Ravaged Europe. It Nearly Killed the British Mastermind Behind It

By Buchan, James | New Statesman (1996), November 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

When Keynes Went to America: The First Bretton Woods Meeting Was Intended to Establish a Postwar Money Regime and Secure Funds for Rebuilding a Ravaged Europe. It Nearly Killed the British Mastermind Behind It


Buchan, James, New Statesman (1996)


The night the Mount Washington Hotel opened in 1902, its builder, the New Hampshire coal and railroad magnate Joseph Stickney, raised a glass to "the damn fool who built this white elephant". With its octagonal towers and 300 yards of wooden verandah, its 234 rooms each with its own bath, its telephone and mail system, and its interminable corridors, set in endless New Hampshire wilderness, this colossal monument to the Gilded Age somehow survived the Depression and wartime shortages to its appointment with financial history in July 1944.

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As allied armies fought their way into Normandy, some 730 finance ministers, delegates and clerks from all 44 allied countries, including China and the Soviet Union, gathered for three weeks at the Mount Washington to plan the postwar monetary and trading order.

The United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, better known from the hotel's railway stop and mail address as the Bretton Woods conference, established a currency regime and two powerful institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The role of Bretton Woods in the postwar recovery is, as always with economists, disputed but the name still evokes, for men such as Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy, an idea of order in a chaotic financial world.

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The gestation of the Bretton Woods conference, as the long-serving US diplomat Dean Acheson put it, "about doubled that of elephants". It arose in the minds of two men of different temper and background but equal brilliance and arrogance: the British economist John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White of the US Treasury. At their backs, like a ghost, was the German banker who served the Nazis till he fell out with Hitler in 1938: Hjalmar Schacht.

The Victorian system for settling international transactions, known as the international gold standard, had come to i grief in the Depression of the 1930s. A succession of countries, led by Britain, detached their currencies from gold rather than be forced by a fixed exchange-rate to cut demand and add further to unemployment. Britain erected a trade tariff round the British empire, known as Imperial Preference, while other countries devalued their currencies to export at any price. By the summer of 1941, when Keynes retired to his country house in Sussex to think about a successor to the international gold standard, Britain was in a desperate plight, in debt not just to the US but to the countries playing host to her armies, such as India and Egypt. Without currency controls, Britain was bankrupt.

Keynes envisaged a sort of supernational bank in which trading accounts would be settled not in gold, but in a sort of artificial or bank money that would be available to members as an overdraft facility according to their share of world trade. Behind it would stand the greatest creditor nation, the United States.

As Keynes's biographer, Professor Robert Skidelsky, writes: "Provided all countries were guaranteed sufficient quantities of reserves, it might be possible to dismantle the trade barriers which had grown up in the 1930s and during the war and restore the single world which had vanished in 1914."

* In devising this plan, Keynes admitted to drawing on Schacht's ingenious use of bilateral clearing arrangements to permit the Third Reich to continue importing raw materials for its military build-up in the 1930s.

In Washington, Dexter White, director of monetary research at the US Treasury, was also thinking about "future currency arrangements" but from a different viewpoint. From President Roosevelt down, the US could not care less about pre serving the British empire. The US wanted currency convertibility and open markets for its exports as soon as possible. The compromise between the Keynes and White plans, which were published in 1943, became known as the Bretton Woods System.

The process began in an atmosphere of mistrust. …

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